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New World Wine Maker Blog - winemaker interviews

Kobus Van Der Merwe – White Winemaker at Kwv

Q Where do you originate ? 

“I was born in Montagu in the Klein Karoo  on 1st March 1983.”

Q Where did you study ?

“I was fortunate to go to Elsenburg Agricultural college where I was successful in obtaining a Diploma in Viticulture and Cellar technology which is another way of saying Oenology.”

Q Do you  consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“I wouldn’t say so, but I do trial a lot on experimental basis  to find the sweet spot to express terroir as best as possible,”

Q How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“Oh dear, not nearly as much as I want to, but it is very important and key to be involved as much as possible to produce wines in the style and quality wanted. At KWV we are lucky to have some truly expert viticulturists who are very good at what they do.”

Q Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

“I have a lot of passion for white varieties. I spend a lot of time experimenting with techniques on different varieties and to determine the versatility of each and the different outcomes are very satisfactory.”

Q Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ? 

“When travelling in New Zealand , especially the Marlborough region, I became very fond of their white wines. The winemakers were very open with what they did but too many to single out any particular person.”

Q What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“ To see how much the wine lovers enjoy  my wine and have the stock totally sold out well before the next vintage.”

Q What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?

In a humble manner. “I have no big secrets but try to be innovative in my winemaking and try all possible ways even if it sounds stupid ! You never know how a new idea will work out and , at the end,  it could become a great success.”

Q How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ? 

“We all know just how expensive modern winemaking equipment is. However, if it can work to it’s optimum it can have a very positive effect in terms of quality and also reduce losses. If a piece of equipment can enhance quality and minimise losses and through this generate payback, it is a must to have in the winery.”

Q How did you get interested in winemaking ?

Answer came with great enthusiasm.  “I grew up on a wine farm and the best time of the year was during the harvest when I helped my father to transport  the grapes to the winery. I was fascinated by the winery and all it’s machinery and the whole process of winemaking.” He continued with obvious enthusiasm.  “I bombarded my father with questions and he encouraged me  and he developed my great passion for winemaking.” And then “After school I was lucky to be accepted by Elsenberg to do my studies  and then set off  to gain experience locally and then overseas  to New Zealand and California. “All of which has helped me enormously.”

Q What about the future ?

“I don’t see myself in any other business but the wine industry. If winemaking has flowed in your veins you will never get rid of it !” “Then I have a gorgeous wife and a beautiful 10 month old daughter to look after.”

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Introducing Warren Ellis – Winemaker Neil Ellis Wines

Q. Where do you originate from ?

“ I was born in Constantia in 1980.”

Q. Where did you go to school and where did you study winemaking ?

“Senior School at Paul Roos in Stellenbosch the University of Stellenbosch where I did a BSc in Viticulture and Oenology. Then, eventually, MSc in Viticulture.”

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking different to others ?

“In some ways yes. I think  I’m a lot more open minded to the use of the technology that is available.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“Not as much as I’d  like to , as the cellar takes as lot of my time. Between 2007 and 201 I was more involved but we had two winemakers  back then !”

Q.  Do you have varieties you prefer to work with ? 

“That’s easy. Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ? 

“My Dad for starters and Andre van Rensburg.  I’d like to think that my way of thinking with regards to making of the different varietal wines is influenced by some of the European regions where they originate from.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“Every time a wine consumer congratulates me on a job well done. When your wine is a benchmark for other winemakers.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed”  that make your wines different to others ?

“I do not believe in keeping secrets from my peers. I’d like to share any knowledge that I have acquired that might help them in the industry.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?

“Unfortunately we do not have very modern equipment. But I think one has to keep an open mind with regards to technology whether it is removing alcohol, adjusting pH or evn additives like tannins for certain roles.”

 Q. How about the future ?

“We at Neil Ellis are still very much focused on our different varietals in different regions. We are just fine tuning what will work best for us in some of the regions.”

Q. What about the Webb Ellis wine ?

“As you know the trophy for the rugby world cup is the “Webb Ellis” trophy. Well my Mom, Stephanie, was a miss Webb. So we launched the “Webb Ellis” to coincide with the last World Cup. It was totally sanctioned by all the correct authorities.  A blend of 65 % Cabernet Sauvignon from Jonkershoek and 35 % Syrah from Groenekloof in Darling and then well oak aged. Only 600 bottles were made available. A really great wine making its mark for South African wines on the world stage.”

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Introducing Justin Van Wyk – Winemaker at Constantia Glen

Q. When and where were you born ?

“I was born in Beaufort West in the Great Karoo in  1984.”

Q. Any significance between Beaufort West and Beau Constantia ?

“No…. but it is a cute connection !!”

Q. Where did you study ? 

“University of Stellenbosch/ I graduated in 2007 with a BSc (Agric) in Viticulture and Oenology.”

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking  to be different to others ?

“No, not really. I think all of us strive  to turn the grapes into good quality wine by the purest and healthiest means possible.”

Q. You mention grapes, how involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“ I get very involved in the vineyard, hence my fairly nonchalant answer to the previous question. I firmly believe wines can really only be altered or dramatically improved in the vineyard, so all vineyard practices from choice of cultivars, pruning, trellising and canopy management are vital tools used to steer the grapes toward style and quality. In essence we are farming for flavour, because we can’t make flavour in the cellar”

Q.  Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ? 

“I really enjoy working with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, especially with barrel fermentation and blending the two in the best possible ratio. On reds I love working with syrah and Cabernet Franc, mostly because of the diverse styles one can make from each of those varieties.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ?

“The St Emilon appellation of Bordeaux, where the vineyards  are more important than the size and grandeur of the Chateau. The most impressive part is how they achieve elegance and finesse together with incredible power in their wines with blends made up mostly of Merlot.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“Being able to balance two winemaking jobs with a family life and giving sufficient quality time to my wife and two daughters !”

Q. What “secrets”  have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ? 

“No secrets. The only “secrets” can perhaps be the knowledge that comes with working with the same vineyards  for a period of 7 to 8 years. This timeframe allows one to really understand a vineyard and even certain sections within a vineyard that give different nuances and qualities. Hopefully this can help in improving the final wine, compared to using vineyards for the first  or second time round.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ? 

“Modern winemaking equipment that makes one’s life easier and is beneficial to the health of the wine is always helpful. For example we  have argon system that can be used to keep all tanks inert whilst storing wine in tanks after fermentation. Even tanks on ullage are kept safe, so this is important and very helpful. But, I suppose, that is the only bit of modern equipment, so maybe not exactly important. I suppose the cooling system can be considered modern !”

Q. Any overseas involvement ?

“Yes. St Emilon in 2008 and Napa Valley in 2010.

Q. What has been your greatest moment ?

“The birth of our first daughter ! Obviously knew she was expected but not quite so early. I had to go directly from the winery to the hospital on a Friday afternoon . She is still full of surprises.”

Q. The future ?

“I intend to enjoy the magnificent Constantia Valley.  In the future there may even be my own little “own label” wine project. Watch this space !”

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Meet Chris Alheit – Winemaker at Alheit Vineyards

Q. Where did you originate ?

“I was born in Cape Town in 1981”

Q. Where did you study ?

“I was a student at University of Stellenbosch and graduated in 2004.”

Q. If you are a product of University of Stellenbosch which was pretty prescriptive at that time, how did you get your ideas on grape growing and winemaking ?

“Most of our ideas  came from our connections in Europe. It was here we developed making low intervention wine.”

Q. Your approach to winemaking is very different to others ?

“Yes. It’s very different to the vast majority of winemakers in South Africa. The only addition we ever use is sulphur. We strongly  dislike new oak. As a well known South African Winemaker says “ Why do you want your South African wine to taste like a French tree ?”  He continues “”I think  that late picking in South Africa is a missed opportunity pretty much every time.”  After some thought “Why work so hard on a beautiful old block of wines, only to drown it’s character in new oak ?”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“VERY. I think separation between vineyard and winery is a bad idea. We are very involved with the farming. We believe in farming as close to nature as we can, and encouraging naturally healthy soil. This is paramount in making fine wine. Dead soil gives dead wine.”

Q. Do you have varieties you prefer to work with ? 

Immediate response “Traditional Cape varieties such as Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Cinsault.”

Q. Why white wine ?

“We really love white wine but also love red but our real fascination is with white wine. We love its flavours and purity. We think the Cape’s true strength is in its white wines. But we also make some great red wines.” He follows “Historically the Cape was white wine. Red has become fashionable fairly recently.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ? 

“I think the Swartland guys have been a big influence. Plus Daniel Vollenweider in the Mosel in Germany. Also fascinated with Lanquedoc, Roussillon and Provence. Also Tegan Passalacqua in California. “

Q.  What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

With a broad grin “I’m still working on that ! Anyway, I think that most winemakers think too much of themselves and of what we do.  It isn’t really rocket science.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ? 

“Probably allowing the must to develop without interference prior to alcoholic fermentation, so zero sulphur nor gas cover at pressing or settling. It’s risky, but the payoff is worth it.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ? 

“It doesn’t feature, unless you consider a bladder press from the 80’s as modern !”

Q. What of the future ? 

“Our winemaking business has revolved around heritage grapes and older vineyards from the outset. This will continue, but we will bring in a strong focus on planting new vineyards in new places, hopefully establishing vineyards that our grandkids will be proud of.”

Q. There was a time when your wife Suzaan was very involved in the business ? 

“In the beginning she was very involved but since the kids have arrived she’s a full time Mom. She still does a bit of admin here and there. She’ll jump back in when the kids are grown.”

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Adi Badenhorst Winemaker at Badenhorst Family Wines

Q : When and where were you born  ?

“I was born in Wynberg in 1972.”

Q : Where did you study ?  

With the mischievous grin that most of his contributions were given  “I studied at University of Stellenbosch  for a few years  before I was asked to leave as a result of my poor academic record ! After much persuasion and bribery I was accepted at Elsenberg Agricultural College. It was here that I found my calling. I studied oenology and viticulture under the great Eugene van Zyl.”

Q : Where did you make wine before Badenhorst Family Wines ?

“I had nine vintages  at Rustenberg where I made some serious wines .” “After Elsenburg I worked a few harvests at Chateau Agelus, and in the north of Rhone in France  and with Wither Hills in New Zealand. In South Africa I did stints at Simonsig, Steenberg and Groote Post.”

Q : Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“No, we simply work with what we have.’ Then with a broad grin continues “ Lack of cash flow and love of vinyl has determined many of our approaches in the cellar !”

Q : How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

With a determined seriousness “I spend a lot of time in the vineyards’. He continued, “I grew up in Constantia and as a kid spent a lot of time stealing grapes which gave me time to perfect my picking techniques !”

Q : Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

“All the varieties that we work with are extremely different and interesting in their own right. The old vineyards of Chenin are simply sublime. Our Grenache and Cinsault, are some of the oldest vineyards in South Africa, have an infectious energy to them and this  somehow translates into wine too !”

Q : Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or by a wine region ?

With some deep thought “A person like Eben Sadie is a complete enigma. We are good friends and I enjoy his wisdom and beautiful wines. Serge Hochar from Chateau Musar was also someone with whom  you talk about life. I love the wines of Burgundy and the Jura and the German wines from that long winding river “ (The Rhine !) He continues “It all started with Jean Daneel, then the winemaker at Buitenverwachting , who let me make my first wine when I was thirteen !!”

Q : What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“A gold medal for Cinsaut at the one and only show in South Africa, the Jongwynskou !”

Q : How important is modern winemaking equipment in your wine making ?

“Not too important at all !” (Adi actually boasts  about  the lack of equipment.!)

Q : Thoughts on the future ?

“We will continue to make wines of authenticity and honesty. We will plant new vineyards to become old for future generations. We will look after and tirelessly care for the older vineyards.”  Then with that tongue full in his cheek “ We will braai every fortnight at 5 am in the morning !!”

Notes  :  In 2008 Adi Badenhorst and his cousin Hein bought a 60 hectare, neglected old farm in the Swartland. The cousins have restored the neglected cellar which was last used in the 1930’s !  A A Badenhorst  practice  biological farming and make wines in very traditional ways.

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Introducing Carl Van Der Merwe – Winemaker at De Morgenzon

Q. Where do you originate from ?

“Born and bred in Cape Town.” With a bit of after thought “I have stayed near the sea and mountains ever since. I live in the greatest wine producing area in Africa, namely Stellenbosch.”

Q. Where did you study and what qualifications do you have ? 

“Before deciding on a career, I did an in-depth analysis of what I wanted and needed in a job to best express my values and interests. I narrowed it down to natural sciences in an agricultural field and being a lover of outdoors, figured that working in the winelands, which tend to occupy some of the most beautiful spots on earth, was the best option.  I studied a BSc majoring in Business management and Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch.”  “ I planned my course of study and have spent a lot of time travelling around the world to various wine regions in search of inspiration and perspective.”

Q. Do you consider your winemaking to be different to others ? 

“Yes, very definitely, I am not mainstream !”

Q. How involved to you get in the vineyard ?

“Very. I am involved in all practices that have a qualitative impact. We try to match vineyard to wine style and thereafter the production team works very closely together.”

Q. Do you have any varietals you prefer to work with ? 

“Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay really sow the hand  of the winemaker , and therefore  pose a great challenge in the winery in order to let that vineyard shine.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or by a wine region ?

With sincerity “I try to learn from all people and have made it my mission to meet and taste wines made by people who are driven by passion and conviction. They may not always be right, but I find that I learn much more from these types of winemakers than winemakers who make wine according to a recipe.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?

“Winning Platters “white Wine of the Year” two years in a row.”

Q. What “secrets “ have you “developed”  that make your wines different to others ? 

Very serious “I don’t have any secrets …..I only try to understand the vineyard site I am working with, and in doing so create a style for a particular wine that is great quality and consistent from year to year. I guess what makes my wines different is that I use a minimum intervention approach and use a little additive as possible. Natural yeast, natural settling, minimal to no use of tartaric acid, minimal to no filtration, minimal use of SO2 etc.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?

Sort of matter of fact “Not very important. We could probably be seen as “old fashioned”   in that we don’t use modern sorting machines, centrifuges, cross flows, etc. Having said that, technology is all a part of human advancement, and there is a place for it, however it’s not a turnkey solution to great wine.”

Q. How do you see the future ? 

“As you know I studied at Stellenbosch and chose to blend a mix of business subjects. This has proven invaluable in running a successful wine business. I am married to the woman of my dreams and am gifted with three wonderful children. I have been working at De Morgenzon with the Appelbaum’s for six years and I am enjoying the challenge of building an iconic South African estate.” After some deep thought he continues “I am motivated by success stories, and the more time I spend at De Morgenzon the more driven I am to continue the success.”

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